La Fortuna de San Carlos, Costa Rica…
In 1968 Arenal Volcano, which was then a lush green mountain, erupted and buried the community of Pueblo Nuevo. More than 100 people were killed. Most of the rest fled. However, the spectacular and continued eruptions of the volcano began to attract tourists. Roads were paved, shops were built, people gradually moved back to the lush, green valley on the “good” side of the volcano. Thus, the brand-new town of La Fortuna was born.
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Today, the road to Volcan Arenal passes through wide pasture lands, stands of sugarcane, and pineapple fields. Cattle and horses graze alongside narrow, crooked roads — some newly paved, some unpaved dirt and stone that turns to mega mud holes after the rains. Trees full of yellow flowers, the yellow cassia or rain of gold trees, decorate yards and village squares and the middle of fields. Children play in the dirt at the side of the road, reminding me that kids everywhere love dirt. Blue skies, sunshine, summer, and dirt. That’s living. Costa Rica, with its eternal summer, has an abundance of the good stuff.
We drive slowly, spot a sloth curled up in a tree, a falcon on a fence post. It’s a crested caracara, a large black bird with a white barred neck, white throat, and hooked bill. Further still, we round a curve just in time to see a tiger ratsnake scurry across the road and head up a bank into the forest. It’s unusually long, big, and black, but not dangerous.
In this part of Costa Rica the locals build fences with live trees. The tops of the trees are cut and used as posts between the live (post/bottoms) trees. The bark is grayish flecked with white and covered with sprouts of new branches growing along the live trunks. The posts, of course, are different sizes; some are crooked, some fairly straight; some thin, others thick. Wire is strung from one to the next. They are fast growing and an excellent way to build fences without cutting down any trees. Floppy-eared cattle stare at us from the other side of the fence.
La Fortuna is located near the base of Arenal Volcano. Today the volcano’s cone is shrouded in puffy white clouds, the mountain itself is green and lush, a tropical rainforest. Our guide tells us the lava flow is on the other side. When the volcano erupted in 1968 shock waves were felt as far away as Colorado. It has continued to be active though on a much reduced scale. The town looks like an ordinary resort town with a few shops and cafes and cabinas to rent. Since we’ve arrived in La Fortuna with time to spare, we head to a nearby waterfalls, passing fields of ginger, corn, bananas, and peppers.
The hike down to the falls is muddy and treacherous in places — 450 dirt “steps” down (and up!), carved into the hillside. It’s slow going as the path hugs the cliff and is narrow and winding. There are a few handrails at first, but soon it’s a matter of grabbing onto rocks and branches and roots. Closer to the waterfalls the path ends entirely and we have to climb the rest of the way over rocks. But what a sight — a clearing in a small cove with a blue-green swimming hole surrounded by forest — one of those unforgettable moments that stir a range of feelings photos can’t capture.
The hike back up the hillside is hot and strenuous. I stop and take breaks along the way, empty my water bottle on my face, find myself alone on the trail at times as we’re all spread out, everyone hiking at his own pace, the kids running ahead up the side of the cliff making me catch my breath, listen to see if I can still hear their voices. The last ten minutes is straight up, crooked, no place to go on the right side. I hug the cliff — literally.
At the top an old fellow with a bushel of green coconuts is shaving off the ends with a machete and offering drinks. Not exactly tasty, but refreshing in any case.
Back down the dusty, bumpy road, back through La Fortuna, and around the volcano. It’s huge, conical, and gets grayer as we turn each new curve in the road. The jungle quickly gives way to a dull, gray mountain where lava flows over the past 40 years have killed all the vegetation. Low-hanging clouds keep the top of the cone hidden.
At Tabacon Lodge we have a room with a view. If the volcano decides to belch up something, we’ll have a front row seat. Though the volcano itself on this side is void of plant life and towers like a barren monster above the village, the valley below is a rainforest of giant trees and vines and tropical blooms. At Tabacon the jungle morphs into landscaped gardens and natural pools — some steamy hot, others like a dip in a cold mountain stream. The volcano heats Tabacon’s natural therapeutic waters to more than 126 degrees.
There are tiled slides, mini waterfalls, and pools of varying sizes, shapes, and temperatures. The largest has a swim-up bar with stools partially submerged in hot water. The showers in the rooms, too, get water piped in from the volcano. It takes awhile to get used to the smell of sulfur. For a brief moment mid afternoon the clouds blow away and Arenal’s cone is visible — and then it’s gone again.
At the edge of dark we head up a nearby dirt road to get closer to the volcano, reaching a peak — a wide space in the road, really — where a few other people are gathered to watch and wait. It’s cool and very windy at this elevation, and the dark clouds moving above us seem almost reachable. We see lights flickering across the valley on another peak, like a glow worm ascending the mountain, and realize it’s another group of people with flashlights.
Suddenly, someone in the dark calls out…something big and red tumbles down the slope of the volcano. Binoculars get passed around. We watch in awe as more hot lumps make their way from the top of the cone to the bottom of the clouds. That’s it! No great rumbles or explosions tonight. Just a few huge sparks of red rolling through the clouds and coming to a simmering stop — somewhere.
It’s very dark now…no street lights, no houses in any direction. We switch off all the flashlights and look at the stars. Someone points out Orion’s Belt. It’s amazing, this sudden realization that everyone we know could be looking at the sky tonight and seeing these same stars — albeit, perhaps, in a different configuration, depending on viewing location. But still the same sky, same moon, same stars. The world that seemed so big when we were hours traveling from one place to another seems small, indeed, when you’re looking at the night sky. It’s the universe — everything else out there — that is far too big to fathom.
The Weekly Volcanic Activity Report is produced every Wednesday by the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program and the US Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program. In May a series of incandescent flows were reported at Arenal and an ash plume that briefly closed down Arenal National Park. Arenal is more than 1,600 meters high and one of the most active volcanoes in Costa Rica. The earliest known eruption was 7,000 years ago and there have been times of major explosions with hundreds of years of quiet in between. Click HERE for more information about Arenal, as well as other volcanoes around the world that are currently showing new activity, “unrest,” or ongoing activity.